In Depth

CBS Seeking a Return to Form

Network Looks for Consistency, Ratings Over Quirky Shows

Over at CBS, offbeat is off the schedule.

In the past few years, CBS used upfront week to unveil something a little off-kilter, experimental or quirky. It tested a singing Hugh Jackman in "Viva Laughlin," a small town grappling with nuclear holocaust in "Jericho" and a couple of families from the '70s coming to grips with the sexual revolution in "Swingtown."

Next season, however, is very reassuring--and it's all very deliberate, part of a must-win formula that ad buyers and Wall Street analysts attribute not only to the network's entertainment executives, but also to CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.

"Les Moonves is very much a hands-on manager, and just is really involved in the consistency of the programming grid," said Michael Nathanson, a media-industry analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. At stake: the continued good health of the CBS network, the financial driver of its parent company. Successful programs can drive more revenue in syndication and international distribution. What's more, CBS is less insulated from fluctuations in ad spending than rivals such as Time Warner, News Corp. or even NBC Universal, all of which have multiple cable outlets to provide revenue.

Steady and reliable appears to be working. Between Sept. 1, 2008 and May 17, 2009, CBS has been able to win more ad dollars than its broadcast-network competitors, according to TNS Media Intelligence. CBS secured approximately $4.03 billion during that time period, TNS said, while ABC took in about $3.67 billion, NBC lured about $3.02 billion, Fox received approximately $2.99 billion and CW took in about $361.9 million.

"Because it's so important, CBS is thinking about ratings more than other guys," Mr. Nathanson said.

The network posted an 11% increase in total viewers for the 2008-2009 season, while notching a 3% gain in viewers between 18 and 49 and an 8% gain in adults between 25 and 54.